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Respiratory Therapists

By Katie Bausler, Community Liaison

When you hear the words health care provider, you might imagine doctors and nurses in scrubs. But the team that takes care of our patients can include everyone from surgical technicians to cleaning staff. Respiratory therapists, or RTs, as they are known around the hospital, are an important part of the team. In the current pandemic, they play an even more integral role.

RTs are specially trained to help patients with all aspects of breathing, including other body systems like the heart or kidneys. Without oxygenation and ventilation, your body is not capable of surviving.

"Here in Juneau, we don't have cardiologists or pulmonologists," notes Nelea Fenumiai, RT, who heads up a team of seven RTs at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

If people come to the hospital and they are having trouble breathing, we get to be kind, to take care of them. I am glad we can help people with that.
—Nelea Fenumiai, RT, director, Respiratory Therapy

RTs help manage a patient's breathing and airway, using tools from nebulizers for asthma patients to CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) administration for infants to ventilators for patients with advanced lung disease, including COVID-19. They also do tests to measure how well the lungs are functioning or to look for diseases like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or asthma.

With COVID-19 attacking the lungs, RTs are making their way from the wings to center stage. RTs help stabilize the most severely ill patients with heart or lung issues for medevac to facilities in Anchorage or Seattle. They also assist physicians or anesthesiologists in intubating patients with severe COVID-19, and much more.

"We have a very wide scope of practice," says Nelea. "We give input to providers. We work closely with the nursing staff. They can need us quickly, especially if a patient is having a hard time. And sometimes we get to come in and save the day."

"I've watched people go through end of life with COPD, which is a miserable way to go," she observes."That can take years. COVID-19 doesn't take years. You decline rapidly. You feel like: 'I hate this—I can't catch my breath.' It's pretty terrible to watch."

Almost all of the COVID-19 patients medevac'd or who have passed on in recent months were unvaccinated.

"That's a big deal," says Nelea. "I respect their choice to not be vaccinated, but I feel that everyone should be open to education about the possible consequences of that choice."

And how does she feel about her chosen field at this point?

"I wouldn't change it," she says without hesitation.

Categories: People of BRH

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